Proteas lose Smith but whitewash still on

Luke Alfred

Luke Alfred

SYDNEY - There's a great game on at the Sydney Cricket Ground and it's not happening quite where you might expect.

It happens not out in the middle but on the stands, on the Bill O'Reilly stand to be precise, where the esteemed patrons of the stand play a little game of their own when the cricket enters one of its periodic lulls.

The game involves keeping an inflatable plastic ball in the air and, as it comes down, launching it up again.

The game is not only to keep the ball afloat, but to keep it away from the security man, because when the security man lays his hands on it, the ball isn't coming back.

At times yesterday it looked as though it was the Australians who weren't coming back, as they clipped through the first session and well beyond to accumulate 445 in their first innings. After riding his luck Michael Clarke went to his tenth Test century, playing some searing straight and square drives and always being prepared to use his feet to attack left-arm spinner Paul Harris.

Clarke went from 73 not out overnight to 138 when he was sharply caught and bowled by JP Duminy as he fashioned a deeply frustrating seventh wicket partnership of 142 with Mitchell Johnson.

The hard-hitting left hander, after having been given a life early by Jacques Kallis in Morne Morkel's second over of the day, went two runs after Clarke for 64. He was well caught by Graeme Smith at first slip off Dale Steyn and with his departure the visitors would have hoped for a quick and painless conclusion to an innings that had far too much life in it for their liking. It wasn't to be.

Nathan Hauritz banged his way to 41 and even Peter Siddle got in on the act with an annoying 23. There's nothing quite like a delusional tailender or two to make a bowling team miserable.

South Africa were flat for the best part of two sessions and while the wicket gave them little help, their disciplines were poor. They were not helped by the return of the catching bogey (catches were dropped in the innings by Kallis, Amla and Ntini, the latter two dropping the fortunate Clarke on Saturday) and their general lassitude.

In mitigation, the Australian bowlers seemed to lack zip when they bowled at the Proteas, most notably Johnson, and should the wicket keep reasonably intact, it is difficult to see Australia winning if South Africa do well enough in their first innings to make them bat again.

South Africa are still 320 runs behind and with Smith coming back from his x-ray with his left hand in plaster, they've now lost their talismanic skipper.